Monday 9 March 2015

Sweetheart, You're So Cruel; Trashing others is no good, Free time is an art & The seven sins of user research

Many an older and wiser (and occasionally younger) friend and relative has reminded me in the past, that if you point a finger at someone else's failings, you're also pointing three fingers back at yourself. It's not as twee as it sounds, and I think there's a lot of truth in this old adage.

When was the last time you scathingly decimated someone else's work and aesthetic sensibilities? Hopefully it was a long time ago, and better still, you were wise enough to not be cruel by doing this in a public domain, to add fuel to your scornful rhetoric. I'm guilty of the aforementioned, although it used to be done more in a jovial mindset. However, it's not something I'm proud of, and would never resort to that now.

Time and tide change us all, and as I moved away both physically and emotionally from a number of more negative and cynical types of friends, I realised how much we were all effectively feeding our and each others' inner critic. The knock on effects, and a sense of 'just desserts' style justice, can be far worse for the perpetrator :-

How Trashing Others Holds You Back

As already mentioned, we all do it and we've all done it. And  beyond the occassional sarcasm and jocular ribbing, it's unpleasant and shameful. I believe strongly in the concept of cause & effect / karma, and what we mock others for, we tend to either dislike in ourselves or are resentful or even ashamed of having ( or lacking) in our own personalities as well. It becomes a sticky-tar cycle of inner brooding and resentment, which just gets worse. And that's what hold you back.

The article mentions the 'sleaze' factor associated with self-promotion, for example. I used to struggle with that terribly for a long time. However, the rationale associated with that type of self-defeating logic ( there is a fine line between self promotion and self-aggrandisation, but more on that at a later date), is that if you don't promote your own work and achievements to a degree, then unless you're paying someone else to tout your skillset ( i.e. an agency or manager), then who else will do this?

More importantly, in our now ultra connected world, how else are you going to get more work, the new girlfriend/boyfriend/partner/ friends...the list goes on.

In effect, all the time spent trashing others is time wasted on bettering and improving your own lot, so to speak. However, time spent doing nothing and just relaxing or chilling out, isn't time wasted :-

The Lost Art of Free Time

Up until my mid 30's, I used to have a lot of guilt regards free time. I was a workaholic and a worrier per se, and both these feed each other. Fortunately I saw sense and revamped my lifestyle to slow down a tad and recalibrate my life on a professional and personal level. As a result, I'm more calmer, less stressed and work smarter to get results. The yoga/meditation I've been doing daily for the last four years has had a lot to do with that as well. That's why I'd wholeheartedly second a lot of the points made in the article.

In essence, you have to make an effort for yourself, too. If you fit any of the usual 'creative overworker' paradigm tick-boxes (e.g. imbibing too much caffeine as 'fuel', always switched on, fidgety, always needing something to do both at and away from work, always thinking about work, very restless but starting to feel tired more often, etc) , then you owe it to yourself to step back, take stock and have a rethink.

Many years ago, I turned down a lucrative job with a large retailer as their ethos was spelt out in the last hour of the interview day, which in itself was eight hours of roleplaying and tests. One of the interviewers said 'we live to work, around here' and then quickly tried to correct himself, blinking wildly as he did so. That said it all to me, and I knew the hours would be collosal ( they always are in the retail sector), and I declined the offer.

Since then, I have nothing but the utmost respect for those who work in retail, as it is a slog that's harder than a U.K. locum G.P. doing his/her rounds ( that's a medical doctor who also works in hospitals during their working week, for those of you not familiar with the aforementioned description).

All work involves a level of research. Wether you're analysing statistics, or going through a load of user feedback forms ( both analog and digital), there is a need for analysing and assimilating data, to reach a level of conclusive decision making in order to move forward. In effect, research can affirm or even throw up new and surprising data, based on the answers to the question set therein. That's assuming the reserach methods and the data, are relatively free from cognitive biases and skew in the first place :-

The 7 Deadly Sins of User Research

I wrote an article called 'Washing machine' Syndrome , and it now makes absolute sense as to why so many washing machines are still  festooned with more combinations of rinse and spin cycles than the average joe or jenny bloggs will ever use.The above article highlights more biases than I was aware of, and the safest conclusion I can come to, is that the best way to obtain accurate results in the field, is by evaluating the variables during field useage or testing. In other words, set the conditions up, and leave them to it. This can be intiated automatically via computer based monitoring, both with and without the consumers' knowledge, but always with their consent.

I say this as when a person is notified of being monitored, it can create a skew due to their behavioural changes as a result. For example, some people become more agitated under those condtions, and this affects the results. The natural solution to this, would be to extend the testing period, as to give this 'en garde' like state a chance to smooth out or dissipate. For instance, if someone was given a car with a new braking system and told they were being recorded by the onboard computer, they may intially be overly conscious of this for the first day. So to extend the testing period to five days or even a week in order to give the user a chance to ease in to the conditions, would help with the accuracy of the test.

Another thing to note, is that it can also be helpful in the case of interviewing users and consumers, to have a team to evaluate the whole experience of testing, as well. For instance, if the interviewer has any biases or subliminal cognitive scenarios that may affect the end user responses ( e.g. keeps on mentioning without realising after a response, that this is also my favourite colour, thereby disarming the person interviewed from potentially changing their mind) .

In the end, the whole research experience can be a lengthy one and care has to be taken to not fall into various traps and pitfalls, which can lead to wholly inaccurate results. This then reflects onto final stage evaluation and marketing departments, which if significantly out of kilter, can break a new version of a product or service at an early stage.

I always think of how and why great products such as Sony's SACD players and BETAMAX video recorders were market failiures. The short answer is inaccurate research into consumer behaviour was part of the blame; what makes one person tick, may turn another completely off into a spell of boredom and disinterest. There are other strands such as price and market conditions to take account of as well, but these fall into the deeper ethos of user research.

Taking an idea from initial thought or vibe, to it's final tangible state with all the changes along the way, is not for cissies.The level of involvement on a personal level in terms of time, energy and money can be substantial and occasionally takes you far beyond your original construct and plan. Assuming of course, that you had a  clear end point envisaged in the first place.

And it's bearing that in mind, that we should regularly reasses and re-evaluate the 'what, where and why' paradigm, during the process. This gives you a chance to make easier decisions, rather than salvaging haphazard 'last-minute' changes, along the way. This in turn saves you time, money, energy, which can be used elsewhere, as and when required.

In general, being more judicious with our systems and processes, allows us to learn to allow other factors to come into flow and play. That may sound paradoxical, but consider how many times you may have had things work out brilliantly, when you've had the keys to the toystore,when  it comes to making business and/or personal decisions.

A framework within which things can be executed, helps keep you and others on track. And ultimately, this enhances the ability to live a happier , more fruitful and constructive life, for you and others around you.

Monday 2 March 2015

The Crow Cries Uncover The Corn Field ; Automation makes us dumb, 25 smarter websites & 90 degree artwork

I used to be a workaholic. Why? Because deep down I saw myself as a lazy person who didn't necessarily want to work up to 80 hours a week, which is what I saw my parents doing for decades. First it was when they worked for others, and then for over 20 years it was whilst they ran their own business.

Years later, I realised that no one I knew worked those sort of hours, so the 50 to 60 hours I was working for a decade plus, were actually quite excessive. To compensate, I partied when I could, and hard, in order to wind down from the effect of being so 'switched on' all the time.

It's incredible what you can put yourself through when in your 20's. I had a lot on my plate(s), which also included familial responsibilities, as my mother had not one but two brain anyeurisms that burst successively. So for about 5 or so years, she needed a lot of care and attention to get her back on her feet both cognitively and emotionally. That took it's toll in other ways, as you never really think for yourself during the time it takes for your loved one to recover. However, 14 years after her illness, she's made a splendid recovery and enjoys life as a retired lady, with a relaxed and fun filled pace.

My pace of life is also relaxed compared to back then, and I'm grateful for it. But the advance of technology has had a large part to play in that. I no longer have to run around, both physically and metaphorically speaking, as much as I did back then for everything. The internet was just starting to proliferate with content and the speed of access had increased to mb per second , but the concept of artificial intelligence was still something best left to science fiction and films such as THE TERMINATOR. It's remarkable how much times have changed  :-

Automation Makes Us Dumb

It's ironic that we've reached a stage where the level of computing power is starting to render us as a race, obsolete. I can remember there was a real sense of satisfaction when using a slide rule and logarithmic tables, in order to perform calculations. That may well be a dying art nowadays, with smartphones having all sorts of built in calculators and available applications to do the job in seconds.

More importantly, I see that a lot of portable devices tend to be used more for information and entertainment ( or 'INFOTAINMENT', as I like to call it), rather than for actual work. That's understandable due to the ergonomics of the devices. But this is porting over to the larger technology platforms such as laptops and desktops.

We're probably using social networking software as much - if not more- than we're using drawing packages and spreadsheets. The rapid nature of interaction and the potential rollercoaster of emotive responses and calls is rendering us to be more scattered and fried. This in turn makes our attention spans and powers of concentration shorter. This can have unwanted cognitive side effects in the long run.

But the problem talked about here, is more to do with leaving the machines and the technology to do more of what we used to do, which is the decision making part of the process. By integrating that more into the design loop, we can avoid this increased feeling of being a 'remote operator' in our incrementally computer-programmed lives. 

More importantly, computers cannot accurately emulate the myriad of emotions that intertwine with our logic and rationality. This is what gives us our uniqueness and sense of individually. Until we even come close to that level of interactive artificial intelligence, we can still do more or less what we want to do. Computers are ultimately programmable boxes of prompts and commands.

Until we can safely find a way to leave them to do more of our what was once considered de rigeur 'donkey' work, then human beings still have a vital part to play in all decision making processes at every level. I hope it stays that way.

And in case the use of technology is making you noticably more cerebrally flaccid, there are tools available on the internet to get yourself back into mental 'top gear'

25 Websites That Will Make You Smarter

There's plenty to plough through on there. All sorts of bases are covered too, so get cracking whilst you can.

Of course, if you're not so much in a working mood, then the arts can be a great mental salve and soothing too :-

See the artwork that only reveals itself at a 90 degree angle

Kudos to the artist Thomas Medicus, who planned everything beforehand so well. The intricacy and final delivery even when watched on my laptop, is remarkable. It'd be interesting to see what else he comes up with, in the future

Whilst we all need and rely on technology to deliver and assist us with our daily lives to an increasing degree, it's always good to stand back and assess the reasons behind this. Not only will this prevent us from incremental lazyness, but it will also allow us to remind ourselves as to whom is ultimately being served here.

In effect, this  metaphorical future paced landscape of silicon, metal and plastic is something we've created and improved upon over the years. And it was done to serve us and not the other way round.

I like making my own decisions and am fine with suggestions from a program or even a device I use. But I'm less comfortable with the increasing micromanagement that our advancing software and hardware combinations is delivering for us. It takes away from the absolute freedom of choice I can employ when selecting what to do, where and why. It goes beyond a basic 'yes or no' and I don't think machines can ever accurately emulate the emotive and sociological power that humans inherantly possess. It's what makes us compassionate, caring, considerate, moody, quirky and so on. It also makes us angry and a bit volatile on occasion as well.

We are the sum of the parts that make the difference. That is what makes our decision making so unique. Ultimately, we can reboot ourselves (to an extent) and choose a slightly or completely different reboot each time, whilst retaining a complex set of variables known as our characteristics and personality. The permutations can run into the millions. That's something a machine can never do as well or dare I say it, as efficiently. And that's a good thing.

Computers are great at quick answers and logic, but we're better at ameliorating and innovating. We've co-existed successfully for this long, so there's every chance we can carry on in harmony for a very long time indeed. Provided, of course, that we continue to know each others' boundaries and limitations, and don't willingly overstep them.

Remember, all technology is only as fast as it's slowest component. To engineer a machine that is more adept at being human, than a human being, would therefore be impossible.

..or would it?